We're in Chemical Overload!

Posted on Jun 20, 2008 in Heavy Metals

Health News Out of Canada

Toxic chemicals: Consumers are the lab rats
William Marsden, The Gazette

Viviane Maraghi expected the blood tests to show she would have some chemical pollution in her body, but nothing like this.¬† After all, she viewed herself as “very environmentalist,” carefully monitoring what she ate and and the household products and items she purchased.

Nevertheless, lead, arsenic, mercury, PCBs, PBDEs (a flame retardant banned in Europe and eight U.S. states but still in use in Canada), plus an array of other chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological diseases were all well represented in her bloodstream.

Her blood tested positive for 36 of 68 potentially toxic chemicals, many of which never actually leave the body, but continue to accumulate over time in tissues such as fat or bone.

They get there because they are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the products we use.¬† Over the last 50 years, from 70,000 to 100,000 different chemicals have been introduced into the world’s markets with about 1,500 new ones added each year. They are found mostly in industrial processes and consumer products such as cosmetics, cleaners, food, plastics and more recently the circuit boards that run our computer electronics. Even a seemingly innocuous polyvinyl chloride (PVC ) shower curtain contains up to 108 toxic chemicals – some of which have already been banned by some countries, but not in Canada.

Manufacturers often argue that these chemicals have been used for decades with no reported incidents of harm. But who has ever been able to say: “I’m dying of cancer and it’s the shower curtain’s fault?”

Fact is, only sporadic toxicity studies have been done on the enormous array of industrial chemicals used in Canada.

Only now are governments beginning to examine the dangers posed to human health and ecosystems. Many western governments are initiating new chemical controls as part of an international Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management agreement signed in Dubai in 2006. The agreement was sparked by the realization that nearly every square inch of the planet is now contaminated to one degree or another with a chemical pollutant. What’s more, over the next 15 years, chemical production is expected to climb 80 per cent. The main goal is to assure that by 2020 everybody uses chemicals safely.

Leading the way is the European Union with a new program called REACH (Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) that requires industry to prove the safety of their chemicals and consumer products before they reach the market.

The next 10 years will see a vast number of chemical assessments, all of which will be made public, that will shed light on the murky world of chemical toxicity. It’s a world that until now has remained hushed up or simply ignored.

The ultimate result could be a sea change in how we develop products for the consumer market. It could lead to widespread bans on some substances, which might see many consumer products disappear from the shelves or be replaced with safer equivalents.

It is an issue that is becoming increasingly important worldwide as species disappear, health costs sore, and concern grows that many diseases, particularly cancers and autoimmune diseases, might be the result of chemical pollution.

Few tests have been performed on Canadians to pinpoint and quantify the chemical pollutants accumulating in our bodies. But that is beginning to change.

Health Canada is testing 5,000 Canadians for chemical contamination and preliminary results should be available in November.

The tests done on Maraghi, 35, and her son Aladin, 12, in 2005 were part of a research project called Toxic Nation undertaken by the Toronto-based activist group Environmental Defence.

An attempt to wake up Canadians to the growing danger of chemical toxins entering our bodies, the study tested 11 individual volunteers plus five families.

Maraghi and her son took part, she said, because she was eager to help raise Canadian’s awareness of the dangers posed by the millions of kilograms of chemicals emitted into the environment each year.

Each volunteer had high levels of many different chemical pollutants in their bloodstreams.

Even Maraghi’s son Aladin, who was only 10 when the tests were performed, tested positive for 25 chemicals and had higher lead levels than his mother.

Both had high levels of organophosphate insecticides, probably because they spent three years living in the country, Maraghi said.

“It was surprising to us because we are very aware and a big part of what we eat is organic, and we try to be careful with the types of products we use in the house,” she said. “So my first reaction was, ‘what happens with people that don’t take care of that and are not aware?’ ”

To date, consumers have been unsuspecting lab rats for chemical companies who have been allowed to market their products without ensuring they won’t damage human health or the environment. Bans have been imposed only after the damage is done.

So far, preliminary studies in Europe and the United States strongly indicate we all are contaminated.

A recent U.S. study found most of its subjects had rocket fuel chemicals in their bodies as well as a host of other toxins like bisphenol A, which gives the clear, pliable strength to plastic water bottles as well as baby formula bottles. Health Canada tests reveal that it disrupts the body’s hormones and could be toxic even at low levels. Because the government here is worried that bisphenol A migrates into baby formula, Health Canada is considering a ban on its use in baby bottles.

Canada, however, is still far behind the EU in assessing chemicals.

The EU’s REACH program officially began on June 1, when it required that every company register chemicals sold in the EU, in bulk or in consumer products. Companies must reveal the chemical composition and toxicity of their consumer products and must finance their own toxicity studies. All of this information will be entered into a public registry. Essentially, until a company proves the safety of its product, it cannot be sold in the EU.

The EU hopes the REACH program will motivate companies throughout the world to produce safer products. Given the enormity of the EU market (it has surpassed the U.S.), the motivation to conform will be considerable.

Canadian exports to the EU, for example, have increased 600 per cent since 1998, totalling $4.7 billion last year. Only a small percentage of our total chemical exports go to the EU (most go to the U.S.), but it is not a market Canadians would want to lose.

While public health and a safe environment for all species are the priorities of the REACH program, EU officials also note that the high costs of cleaning up contaminated sites as well as fighting diseases caused by chemical contamination are significant reasons to implement the program.

The EU says the program will cost industry up to $8.2 billion over the first 11 to 15 years. However, it estimates a reduction of .01 per cent in the overall burden of disease would save about $80 billion over 30 years.

A wide array of studies indicate a significant proportion of disease is directly related to environmental and occupational factors like chemical contamination. The World Health Organization estimates that the poor, particularly children and women, suffer disproportionately from diseases that are related to environmental contamination. In developing countries, up to 35 per cent of diseases are caused by contaminated environments.

The figures could, however, be much higher for all societies. But because few studies have examined this issue, nobody really knows. The studies that have been done indicate serious problems.

For example, scientists at Université Laval have revealed that Inuit children and their mothers in northern Quebec have high levels of organochlorines such as PCBs and the extremely toxic chemical dioxin. These chemicals can damage the immune system, especially as it develops in the womb and during infancy. This might explain why Inuit children have been found to have a much higher incidence of acute infections such as ear and lung infections compared with people living in southern Quebec. Most of the chemical pollution in the North has been brought from the South by ocean currents that circle the Arctic. The contaminants concentrate at the top of the food chain in predatory fish and mammals, which are the main food source for the Inuit.

In some cases, studies show that Inuit children’s immune systems have been so badly damaged that doctors are hesitant to prescribe antibiotics for fear¬† they will worsen the infection.

Canada has started its own chemical assessment program. Unlike the EU program, which demands that industry foot the bill for toxicity assessments, the Canadian program is completely financed by the taxpayer.

“On the level of depth and breadth of coverage, the REACH program wins on both accounts,” John Margeson, Industry Canada’s chemical specialist, said.

Canada’s umbrella law for the regulation of chemicals is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

Under this law, which was passed in 1999, all new chemicals produced in or imported into Canada since 1994 have to be assessed for health and environmental effects by Health Canada.

However, companies can market a chemical before tests are completed. Essentially, it is up to the government to prove the chemical is a risk before it is taken off the market.

There is also no obligation for the government to keep a dangerous chemical off the shelves. The law gives the government up to two years after assessing a chemical to take action, but does not oblige it to ban a dangerous chemical.

“These chemicals are in all kinds of different products and it’s going to be very interesting to see how much political will there is and whether they have the guts to do things that are going to be disruptive to the market,” Dr. Kapil Khatter, pollution policy advisor for Environmental Defence, said. “It’s hard not to bow to the social and economic pressures.”

What’s more, when the new CEPA was made law in 1999, it did not require that companies supply toxicity reports for the 23,000 chemicals already widely used Canada.

It did, however, obligate the government to sort the chemicals into those that are inherently toxic to humans or to the environment.

The sorting process was finally completed in September 2006. The government identified more than 4,000 chemicals, which it decided required further study. Of these, it labelled 200 “high priority.” Of these 200, 66 are potentially dangerous to human health and the rest pose ecological dangers. All of them have remained on the market as the government completes its assessment. The final test results for the first 15 chemicals will be published July 5. But that is nowhere near the end of the assessments.

Christine Norman, acting director of the risk and impact assessment branch of the program, said it will take two more years to complete the testing on the 200 high-priority chemicals. Then there are another 2,600 chemicals from the petroleum sector that will have to be assessed; another 1,400 are considered of medium priority. How long that will take is not clear.

So far, Health Canada has identified 16 substances that pose a high risk to humans and another 17 that are toxic to other species.

One of those substances is thiourea, which is used in metal finishing solutions as well as silver polish, tarnish removers, metal cleaners and in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and in the pulp and paper industry.

The federal government claims that in 2006, industry imported between 10,000 and 100,000 kilograms of thiourea. Norman said the government knows the exact number but won’t make it public because industry insists it is a business secret.

Importation was permitted despite the fact that dozens of studies dating back as early as 1947 showed that even at low doses rats and mice fed thiourea developed a variety of cancerous tumours. It can enter the human body orally, through inhalation or through skin contact.

The Chemical Substances Program published an assessment of thiourea on May 8 stating that it could cause cancer “at any level of exposure.”

The report said thiourea should be considered a “substance that may be entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.”

But despite its potential danger to humans, the chemical is still widely used in Canada.

Norman said the final assessment is still months away. She said two years after the final assessment, Health Canada will publish a risk-management assessment that will outline steps the government should take to deal with the dangers. These could include an outright or limited ban on its use, or simply a warning on packages.

The chemical bisphenol A is another example of the slow pace of government action. Global production, now more than three billion kilograms per year, is increasing. Bisphenol A has been found in high concentrations in municipal and industrial wastewaters, sludge and biosolids, which are often spread as fertilizer. As well as a danger to humans, “bisphenol A is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and is considered highly hazardous to the aquatic environment,” Health Canada states in its assessment. Yet the government is only considering a ban on its use in baby bottles, without considering its danger to wildlife or the broader Canadian population.

Khatter said the government just wants to give the appearance of taking action. “There is an intellectual gap between the people who wrote the risk assessment and the minister’s office,” he said. “The risk assessment says this stuff is really toxic to aquatic wildlife at very low levels and we have to do something about releases to the environment, period, but all the government seems to do is ban it from baby bottles.”

In March 2007, Health Canada began testing 5,000 Canadians for the chemical pollution in their bodies. Tests are being done on blood, urine, hair, saliva and breast milk.

The idea is to track chemical contamination levels in a broad spectrum of the population and measure trends in exposure over time and by geographical region.

Eventually, Health Canada hopes to be able to compare the medical records with the level of chemical exposure to find a possible relationship between the two.

Statistics Canada is compiling the data. Jeanine Bustros, director of the project, said they have already completed about two thirds of the testing including subjects in Montreal and the south shore communities.

Preliminary results for heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury are scheduled to be made public in November. Final results for all 5,000 participants across Canada will be released January 2010, she said.

Each participant fills out a lengthy and detailed health and lifestyle survey detailing such data as illnesses, daily routines, exercise regiments, food consumption, job environment, beauty products, hobbies, stress levels and products used in the home.

“This is the first time we will have normative data on the level of chemicals in the Canadian population,” she said. “This means that we will have a point of reference to compare, say, the levels of lead in a person with the norm.”

Advances in the technology of detection are making it easier for scientists to detect the present of even the smallest quantities of chemical pollutants. We can now detect chemical levels in parts per trillion.

“One part per trillion is one second in 32,000 years,” Dr. Joe Schwartz, a chemist at McGill University’s science and society department, noted. “That you can detect things in that concentration is far better than finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding a needle in a world full of haystacks.”

Our ability to measure data, however, has outstripped our ability to interpret the data, he said. The ultimate goal has to be to find out what, if any, detrimental health or environmental effects exist. With many chemicals, this is still a black hole.

Most studies that detect potentially dangerous toxins are the result of giving large doses to rats, but what kills a rat may not have any effect on humans.

“The value of bio-monitoring is going to be long term,” Schwartz said. “If we have a good baseline now, we get good data and then we check 10, 20 years down the road to see if there is any alteration in disease patterns for those people and then you look back to see if there is any link.”

So while Maraghi and her son Aladin may know the chemicals that are polluting their bodies, finding out the impact is a wait-and-see game.

She said her son never gets sick. She on the other hand is plagued with migraines.

“I have had them since I was young. But it’s hard to relate it to anything.”

But just knowing about the chemical cocktail in her body is a good thing. It’s made her even more careful of what she buys.

“I lately brought a mattress for my son and since we were aware of the products they can put in, like the products against fire, we asked for a mattress without (fire retardants). Whereas before when I bought any of this furniture, I would never ask this question because I was not aware.”

wmarsden@thegazette.canwest.com

Visit Canada’s Chemical Substance Program website at www.chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca